Tag Archives: president-parliamentary system

Marshall Islands – A question of confidence

President of Marshall Islands, Christopher Loeak, last week survived his second motion of no confidence in six months. In this case, the opposition brought forward the motion on the grounds that the government had ignored proper process in its attempt to appoint Jamil el-Sayed, a Lebanese national, as its representative to UNESCO. Specifics aside, the incident raises numerous interesting questions about the nature of presidential politics in Marshall Islands, and the Pacific region more generally.

The Marshallese constitution is commonly known as a ‘hybrid’ of Westminster and Presidential systems. In reality, however, it is more Westminster or Parliamentary than it is Presidential with the President – who is also the head of state – elected by parliament and answerable to it for all government decisions. Should a motion of no confidence – passed by a simple majority on the floor of parliament – be successful then the President is deemed to have tendered their resignation.[i] Historically, this has meant that both the Speaker and the judiciary have had a significant influence on when these motions are brought forward and the procedures by which they are resolved.

What regular readers of this blog will note is that in definitional terms the Marshallese constitution does not quite fit the established typologies. In a broad sense we might call it a Semi-Presidential system but with the added feature that the functions usually ascribed to either the President or the Prime Minister are effectively undertaken by the same person. In practice, however, the Marshallese system works in much the same way as a Westminster system does, thus begging the question of whether, aside from the name of the office, it is really Presidential at all.

Definitions aside, one of the interesting features of this type of arrangement is that while, in theory, the standard Westminster formula allows political parties to guarantee the executive numbers on the floor of the house, in practice the opposite often occurs. The main reason is that while political parties exist in the Marshall Islands, they have tended to function as loose blocs rather than institutionalised machines. When combined with the relatively small size of the Marshallese Nitijela [parliament] – it has 33 members – a decision by a few parliamentarians to switch sides can bring down the government whose position is perpetually precarious.

The Marshallese experience is not unique as this feature of political life is common to both standard Westminster and hybrid constitutional systems across the Pacific. Indeed, Marshall Islands is relatively stable when compared with neighbouring Nauru, which has similar constitutional arrangements, where more than a dozen successful motions of no confidence have resulted in changes of President since independence in 1968.

To solve this instability, several countries have attempted to introduce legislation that stops MPs crossing the floor. However, it remains to be seen whether this will increase stability, as, in some cases, these mechanisms have been deemed unconstitutional. What does seem certain, however, is that the regularity of these no-confidence events will continue to sharpen calls across the region for constitutional reform that either alters Westminster to suit the Pacific context or ushers in full Presidential regimes.


[i] Stege, K. 2009. “Marshall Islands.” In Pacific Ways: Government and Politics in the Pacific Islands, ed. S Levine, pp. 112-120. Wellington: Victoria University Press.

Ukraine – Presidency in turbulences

The recent weeks have seen overwhelmingly fast-paced developments in Ukraine. After months of protests, the conflict between government and protesters escalated and resulted in the deaths of at least 88 people. Government and opposition agreed on the return to the 2004 constitution which curtailed presidential power, yet parliament later moved to oust the president and installed the speaker of parliament as acting head of state. This post will give a brief overview of the developments and explain what changes were introduced with regard to the presidency.

Return to the 2004 constitution

Following the Orange Revolution, parties agreed to amend the Ukrainian constitution of 1996 (before then the country had operated under an amended version of their Soviet constitution). For the most part, these amendment concerned the role of the president. After having been a prime example of a president-parliamentary system under which the prime minister and government was subordinate to the presidency, the 2004 amendments transformed Ukraine’s political system to a Premier-presidential system. In 2010, president Yanukovych and his Party of the Regions reverted these changes by having the Constitutional Court – now staffed with the president’s allies – declare the changes unconstitutional.

presidential powers in the ukrainian constitution

The agreement between president and opposition of 21 February included to once again return to the the 2004 version which was confirmed by parliament on the same day. As can be seen in the table above, the differences largely concern presidential power in government formation and dismissal as well as the president’s power to annul government acts. However, the president retains his powerful presidential veto. Given that an absolute 2/3 majority is needed to override a veto but only a relative majority to adopt a version that includes the president’s amendment, the presidency can still dominate the legislative process without much effort.

Ousting of Viktor Yanukovych from the presidency

One day after the signing of the aforementioned agreement, parliament surprisingly decided to oust president Yanukovych from office even though it appeared that he would agree to step down by the end of the year and clear the way for early presidential elections. While many media outlets reported that Yanukovych had been impeached, this is not quite correct as parliament failed to follow the procedures laid down in Art. 111 of the Constitution (unaffected by the 2004 amendments). These require that an absolute majority of deputies establishes a special investigatory commission. Following the investigation a 2/3-majority of all deputies must then bring the case to the Constitutional Court or the Supreme Court (depending on what the president is accused of). Only if the respective court confirms the constitutionality of the procedure and the allegations can parliament impeach the president with a 3/4-majority of its members.

Results of the vote to oust Viktor Yanukovych from the presidencyVote_Ousting of Yanukovch_presidential-power.com

While the Ukrainian parliament passed its decision to remove Yanukovych from office with 73% of its members (and with unsuprising absences on the part of Viktor Yanukovych’s ‘party of the Regions’), the vote was thus not an impeachment of the president in the constitutional-legal sense. Admittedly, the actual relevance of this violation is decreasing by the minute – even though Russia uses it as part of their argumentation not to accept the new regime – and will likely be dismissed as a ‘procedural error’ once a new president is elected.

Speaker Oleksander Turchynov as acting president & elections on 25 May

On the same day, parliament also elected the former deputy Prime Minister Oleksander Turchynov as its new speaker. Pursuant to Art 112 of the constitution Turchynov then took over the role of temporary head of state. As acting president Turchynov is forbidden to exercise a number of powers, in particular he cannot:

– convey public addresses to either the Ukrainian people or parliament
– dissolve parliament or set a date for early parliamentary elections
– propose new ministers of foreign affairs and defence, or make appointments to the constitutional court or National Bank
– grant pardons

Parliament also scheduled new presidential elections for 25 May (given the limited powers of an acting president to dissolve parliament this is the necessary precursor to early parliamentary elections). Potential candidates include former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was released from jail on the same day as the ousting of president Yanukovych, yet whose candidacy is seen with much scepticism among Ukrainians. UDAR-chairman Vitali Klitschko (read more about his presidential ambitions here) might have better chances. His decision to refrain from being part of the new government led by Arseniy Yatsenyuk was widely interpreted as a move to keep clear of any blame the government might attract over the necessary but painful economic reforms and thus start into the presidential race as a ‘fresh’ candidate.

[N.B.: The post previously stated that a 2/3 majority was needed for the final impeachment vote whereby in fact 3/4 are needed. Thanks to Justin Grove for pointing this out.]